For the Birds Radio Program: Allergies

Original Air Date: July 13, 1992

Laura turns out to be allergic to one thing: birds. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


I’m not an allergic kind of person. Pollen doesn’t bother me, and dog and cat fur have never affected me in the least. I don’t have food or medication sensitivities, and I don’t even react to poison ivy. There’s only one thing in the world that I’m allergic to: birds.

I’m not particularly affected by birds themselves but I am allergic to feathers and especially to the flaking sheaths of new feathers. Most of the year this allergy is something I can live with, even with a variety of birds in my house. I did have to get rid of my down pillow and I’m mighty uncomfortable after a night sleeping in my own sleeping bag. But it’s when I have growing baby birds and molting adults that I wheeze and sneeze all the time.

This year I haven’t had many baby birds—I’m afraid most songbirds never brought their nests off in June because of the extraordinarily cold and rainy weather. With so few nestlings and fledglings to care for, I haven’t been working, or sneezing, as hard as I usually do in early summer, but I do have one baby crow growing feathers at a furious rate. These pin feathers are so called because as they break through the skin, they’re covered with a pin-like sheath. The bird must scratch and preen, breaking the sheath off piece by piece, in order to allow the emerging feather to open. Pin feathers much feel itchy, because the baby crow, which my children have dubbed “Patty Cake,” has been scratching and preening to beat the band. And when she’s done, she shakes out her feathers and a cloud of gray, flaky dust emerges, affecting me worse than Burlington Northern’s benzene cloud did.

As if coping with Patty wasn’t bad enough, Sneakers the Blue Jay and Fred the Nighthawk have taken it into their heads to start molting. Every time Sneakers flies through the house, he drops another primary wing feather. New feathers are growing in quickly, and the newspapers lining the bottom of his cage are covered with gray dust no matter how often I change them. Fred the Nighthawk spends much of his time preening now, too. I’m pleased that Fred is growing a few new feathers—his were badly damaged when he was first injured last spring, and he never replaced the bad ones over the winter when he should have undergone a complete molt. Nighthawks usually molt on their wintering grounds, and I’m dreading it because nighthawk dust seems to be the worst kind for my head.

Most birds molt once or twice a year. Songbirds, hawks, owls, and most other groups lose a few flight feathers at a time, and although it may give them a ragged appearance in flight, it doesn’t affect their flying ability. They grow in new feathers without altering their lifestyles. But loons, ducks, geese, and swans have such heavy bodies relative to the size of their wings that the loss of even one or two primary feathers can make the wing surface area too small to support the heavy body in flight. Rather than drag out their molt the way other birds do, these waterbirds molt all their flight feathers at once and go through a time of absolute flightlessness as new feathers grow in. These birds are all fine swimmers, and ducks, geese, and swans are also excellent land runners, so they usually manage to stay safe during this flightless period, but as if to ensure, their safety, just before male ducks molt their wing feathers, they molt their body feathers, growing in dull, female-like feathers for camouflage. These feathers give a bird what is called eclipse plumage.

Fortunately, I’ve never had to take care of a molting duck. Nighthawks and songbirds are bad enough. Ogden Nash’s poem about the canary seems especially appropriate for someone with an allergy:

The song of canaries never varies,
And when they’re molting, they’re pretty revolting.